Another installment of Franky Benítez. For a full list of chapters, click here: Table of Contents
Franky had never seen so much dead pork dangling around in his life. Don Octavio Benítez had always imported two crates of freshly cured sea-salty serrano ham from The Palace of the Ham in Madrid for the family’s annual New Year’s Eve party, but Franky had never actually seen or tasted these fatty, crimson treasures. This would be his first time.
While Franky headed towards the hams and the bar near the Benítez family pool in Diamante to get his father another Cutty Sark and ice, a crowd of neighbors, friends, and associates of Don Octavio danced to Ruben Blades and Willie Colon records that Franky’s cousin Ismael played from his new two turntables and speakers.
Life will give you surprises, surprises will give you life, yes, sir.
The music blaring, Franky waited for the bartender to pour the drink by taking the knife tied to one of the dangling hams. He cut a slippery chunk and chomped into it. Right then, Franky Benitez fell in love with Spain.
This was Franky’s first New Year’s Eve party at his grandparents’ home. Turning ten years old earlier over the summer had earned him the privilege to stay awake until 4 am, revel with his older cousins, and deliver Cutty Sarks on ice for his father, Fracisco Antonio. Franky had begged his mother Linda since last summer to let him get on a plane by himself and fly to down to Puerto Rico for New Year’s. Linda relented, since the last thing she wanted from Franky was more resistance from a smart-ass preteen who would dangle her divorce from Francisco Antonio like one of the hams at Don Octavio’s party. And since she was seriously dating again (an NYPD homicide detective she met on her nights shifts at the ER), a happy Franky could make her own situation more promising. So off she sent Franky to JFK via a car service, while her daugther Veronica, now five, stayed with her and a broken radiator in her frigid Bronx apartment.
With the sea salt and ham fat still wedged in his mouth, Franky headed back to his father, who was dancing with Azucena Fabrizzi del Santos, a former Ms. Ponce who had just returned from a sabbatical in Barcelona to spend the holidays with her family on the island. Azucena was still in college, almost ten years younger than Francisco Antonio. They had met two nights before at Leonardo’s discotheque on Ashford Avenue in Condado. Azucena was with two of her girlfriends, and she wore an ivory white dress with high black heels, her straight dark hair reached the top of her slender waist, her blue eyes were the color of the Caribbean. Francisco Antonio saw her saunter into the disco, sent a bottle of champagne to her table, and was mounting her in the back of his car three hours later.
Franky watched his father and his new friend gyrate around the dance floor. Sweat dripped from Francisco Antonio’s silk shirt, his whoops of joy timed to each note from Willie Colon’s magical trumpet. Azucena clung to het partner’s waist, her hips pressed and locked onto Francisco Antonio’s trousers. There was no way that Francisco Antonio would be worried about getting another drink from his son right now, so Franky held on to the Cutty Sark and walked over to Ismael’s DJ table.
Ismael, one year older than Franky, had a set of headphones wrapped around his afro, as he pulled Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall from the record sleeve and lined up a needle to the 12″ remix of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.’” The Blades/Colon song was still spinning on the other turntable, and Ismael was timing the beats between the two songs so that Jackson’s voice would hit the rhythm at the exact transition point.
“It’s disco time!” Ismael shouted into his microphone. “Happy 1979, everyone! We are playing music all night!”
Franky smiled at his older cousin. Ismael had picked up his DJ hobby earlier in the year, when he heard Donna Summer singing on the island’s new disco radio station. His parents gave him the DJ equipment for his eleventh birthday, and Franky, who spent his summers in Puerto Rico, remembered when the cousins went that very same day to the local DiscoMania store to buy LPs of Kool and the Gang, Chic, and the Sugar Hill Gang. (Franky had suggested “Rapper’s Delight” to Ismael, having heard the song for the first time walking down Jerome Avenue in The Bronx.) Since that time, Ismael had bought close to two hundred records, and had asked his grandfather for permission to play the music at the party. Don Octavio, always encouraging his grandchildren’s talents, agreed without hesitation.
“Franky? What do you think?” Ismael turned to his younger cousin. No one who didn’t know they were cousins would think Franky and Ismael were related. Franky had his grandmother Luisa’s lighter Spanish skin and his mother’s brownish-blonde hair while Ismael, whose mother married the great-great-grandson of a former slave, had Don Octavio’s North African moorish features.
“It’s cool, Izzy.” Franky said as he stopped watching his father dance with Azucena and turned his attention to his cousin.
“Sugar Hill Gang is coming up next,” Ismael said. ”I said a-hip-hop-a-hibby-to-the-hibbity-hip-hop…”
“Rock it, you don’t stop,” Franky chimed in, sloshing around a bit of the Cutty Sark onto his arms.
“Now what you hear is not a test,” they rapped together.
Franky put his arm around his cousin and smiled. And making sure no one saw him, he took a sip from the Cutty Sark. He then gave a sip to Ismael.
The whiskey didn’t burn, as he had expected, it didn’t taste like paint or poison. It tasted like warm honey. Maybe it was the sea salt of the ham, the drum machine pumping through the woofers of the speakers, or maybe it was because Franky just wanted to just ignore what was right in front of his face: his father was with another woman.
No one really knew why Franky drank the rest of the Cutty Sark with his cousin, while the Sugar Hill Gang bragged about their macho prowess. The truth is that this wasn’t the Bronx, this was Puerto Rico, and the sight of a ten-year-old boy drinking whiskey on the rocks and dancing around the house like a frenzied jitterbug didn’t seem so strange. Yet every family member noted that they had never seen Franky dance, and the pride filled the dance floor for the little sad boy they had lost from the island three years earlier. ”Long live Franky! Long live Franky!” Ismael shouted from his microphone. Within minutes, Franky was dancing between Francisco Antonio and Azucena, leaping and hugging each of them.
Yes, Franky thought, The Bronx is not Puerto Rico. That borough so distant from the pulse of Manhattan had kept him shy, reserved, resentful, and withdrawn. At his first New Year’s Eve party back home on this island of enchantment, Puerto Rico had released him, set him free. He was unshackled forever. This party, this home, this family that danced until 6 am and then shared the first Benítez breakfast of 1979 in crumpled party clothes was where Franky belonged.
Life will give you surprises, surprises will give you life, yes, sir.
Or so he thought.