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Summer, 1986

When he was seventeen, the summer before his freshman year, Franky Benítez would wake up at noon each day and head to the beach with a case of Medalla beers, two Whoppers and onion rings. By sunset, Franky, his cousin Ismael, and their best friends Marito and Guille would return to Franky’s condo where he lived with his father, his stepmom, and his brothers and sisters. MTV would buzz in the living room as the boys drank more beers, and Franky’s stepmom made them dinner. Around ten, after kissing his siblings good night, Franky and his boys would pass the Studio hair gel, spray themselves with Polo and get dressed for Neon’s, a club that would blast New Wave for the children of light-skinned Puerto Rico. The attire was always typical San Juan Menudo: jeans, docksiders, no socks, open-collared shirts, Izod or OP or Playero, a necklace, a crucifix, a watch, some cash.

To Franky, Ismael, Marito, and Guille, Neon’s was theirs, and they owned it as if they were a bunch of preppie Rat Packers. They would walk in, order some Long Island Iced Teas, take their corner table and wait for the girls to head their way since they all knew that although Franky was the shy one, the Puerto Rican girls loved him. He had both his mother, her hazel eyes, her light brown hair, and his father, his coffee skin, his smile, his laugh. Franky was so different, the girls would say, and did you know he got into Harvard? Who didn’t know?

But, as Franky once told Ismael, San Juan girls wasted entire days preparing themselves. The short dresses, the makeup, the slicked-back hair. Life was not a Robert Palmer video. Of course, Franky would be polite to his San Juan girls, say hello to them with kisses on cheeks, ask them about their day, their college plans, and whether they were headed to the beach the next afternoon. And sometimes, when the night was slow and Franky drank his third Iced Tea, and they played “Bizarre Love Triangle,” he would be the first one to dance with them.

American girls were different. You could pick out an American girl in Puerto Rico without even talking to them. American girls always wore jeans and blouses, and they always wanted to drink. They were simple: they listened and made him laugh. They knew his music, his favorite movies, and they wouldn’t care if he didn’t feel like going out some nights. On the island, unlike when he was back in the Bronx, the American girls Franky met would also be willing. Some nights, Franky and his boys got lucky. They would drink, dance, and head for the beach in jammed cars, wine and cigarettes in hands. And that was it. No commitments, no dates the next night, just some caresses and promises to write from college. On most other nights, after Neon’s closed, they would head to the casino for ham-and-cheese sandwiches, a few bottles of beer and the chance to make a run against the dealer.

“I will show all you how this shit is done!”

That was Franky’s father one night during that summer of 1986 as he led the boys into the El San Juan Hotel and Casino. Franky believed right there: his father was a saint. Saint Francisco Antonio Benítez of Hope, patron saint of all dreamers.

The story goes that Francisco Antonio had just forty dollars in his wallet when he sat at the final seat of a crowded ten-dollar table in the far corner of the casino. In just four shoes, he had accumulated over four thousand dollars in winnings, prompting the pit boss to rate him for the rest of the night and offer him two VIP tickets to a boxing match that the El San Juan would host the next evening. Francisco Antonio thanked the pit boss for the offer and returned to the hotel’s restaurant, where he treated Franky’s boys to a meal of freshly-caught lobsters from Fajardo, plaintain mofongo, rice, beans, yuca, and coconut flan. All this and bottles of a Chilean wine one of Franky’s boys had claimed was grown near the grave of Pablo Neruda.

And as he placed a stack of hundreds next to the check, Francisco Antonio stood up on his chair and yelled, “I can do it one more time!” So, he led the boys to the most expensive table in the casino, and seated alone this time, tripled his money in less than half an hour. By now, the pit boss had offered the hotel’s penthouse suite, to which Francisco Antonio so graciously accepted.

“Now, gentlemen, in order to complete this marvelous night, I ask all of you to please join me at the bar,” Franky’s father said, cashing in his chips, the casino providing him with a check for nine thousand dollars.

And the moment Francisco Antonio approached the bar, he was welcomed with a rounding show of applause, to which Franky’s father responded, “Drinks for everyone! And put it on my bill!”

They drank until three in the morning. And when Francisco Antonio received the tab, he placed the check for nine thousand dollars on the bar and walked away.

Later, Franky and his father walked the beach and collapsed right near the shore. “I love you, son, I love you more than anything else in the world,” Franky’s father said. Then he began to sing his song, the song he had made up just for Franky that night in front of the cinema in Santurce, the first summer his son came back to Puerto Rico after moving to the Bronx with his ex-wife.

That summer in 1986, Franky Benítez saw his future. It would be just like his father in a casino. Nothing would stop it.

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